Creating a Sensory Garden

photo credit: http://piccsy.com/2012/06/picc-65gaye1e1/
(photo credit: http://piccsy.com/2012/06/picc-65gaye1e1/)

Here are some ideas to create a stimulating sensory garden experience to engage all of your students’ senses! Children can be hesitant about approaching plants, since they’re so often told not to touch.  Sensory gardens are an exciting place for kids to connect with nature, because they are actually invited to touch, rub and smell, and/or even eat the plants.  A sensory garden will use hardy plants that can stand up to children’s abuse.  Plants and accessories are chosen because they have interesting textures, nose-tickling aromas, tasty leaves or flowers, eye-catching displays, or they create curious sounds.

When designing your garden,  use containers or create raised garden beds in order to allow easier access to the plants (bringing them closer to the nose). Containers may also be useful if you want to include plants that need to be brought indoors over the winter. You may want your plants even higher off the ground in order to allow for easy access to the plants from a wheelchair.  Here is a great photo of a sensory garden designed for access by people in wheelchairs.

Before entering a sensory garden, I would set clear parameters for your students.  For example, your sensory garden may only have plants meant for tasting in one area, and students should be explicitly taught those boundaries.  Or perhaps tasting will only be allowed when an adult is leading a tasting session.   You will also need to teach children how to touch plants appropriately:  how to gently rub a leaf and sniff your fingers to smell its scent; how to gently touch an interestingly textured flower or leaf without crushing it; or how to rip off a tiny bit of a leaf to taste, instead of an entire stem.

Here are some ideas of plants and accessories to include in your sensory garden:

Stimulating garden textures

Soft and furry textures:

fountain grass seed heads are so tempting to touch!
fountain grass seed heads are so tempting to touch!
silky tufts of pampas grass seed heads (photo credit:  mason bryant http://www.flickr.com/photos/ihardlyflickr/289797409/)
silky tufts of pampas grass seed heads (photo credit: mason bryant http://www.flickr.com/photos/ihardlyflickr/289797409/)

Other garden textures:

  • Spongy (moss)
  • Papery (chinese lantern plants, tomatillos, birch bark)
  • Fleshy (succulents like ice plants or hen and chicks work well; please be careful to stay away from Euphorbia, as its white sap can cause a bad rash in many people)
  • Waxy (Alocasia amazonica, pictured below)
  • Bristly, without being sharp (echinacea flower heads, heather)
  • Playful (snap dragons will open and close their “mouths” when pinched; be sure not to get the hybrids, as they won’t have working mouths)
  • Reactive to touch (the sensitive plant will actually curl up its leaves when touched)
  • Smooth river rocks
  • Rough tree bark (here are some fun ways to incorporate wood and bark texture with a play space)
  • Mosaics
  • Water play (This fun looking structure looks pretty simple to assemble; or if you’re more adept with building, you may want to consider a structure like this, except I would skip the expensive pumps and simply have a bucket available for children to fill with water at the bottom, and then carry the water to the top to pour it down)
  • Bins with different types of soils (dirt, sand, clay, gravel)
  • Bins with different types of seeds from the garden (dried corn kernels, dried beans, acorns, pine cones)
Alocasia amazonica Elephant's-Ear Plant ალოკასია
The stiff, waxy leaves of the Alocasia amazonica (photo credit: Lazaregagnidze [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Acorns offer both smooth and rough textures
Acorns offer both smooth and rough textures.

Eye-catching Displays

One of the first steps to creating a visually interesting garden, is to plant your garden with plants of all heights, from tall trees, to bushes, to low growing herbs.  Try to mix up the visual textures of your garden, including plants with small, frilly leaves; large, flat leaves (such as hostas); upright, spiky leaves (like day-lilies or iris); and droopy, draping stems (like a weeping willow, or weeping yew). Also, consider what will be visible in the winter months and think about including lots of evergreens, red vines, textured barks, holly, and ornamental grasses in order to keep your garden visually stimulating during the winter months.  You can easily create an eye-catching display with any variety of brightly colored flowers.  I like to include some visually fun plants as well:

bleeding heart flowers are sweet to see in spring.
bleeding heart flowers are sweet to see in spring.
  • Balloon Flowers (which have large round buds that look like balloons in the summer; click here for a picture)
  • Giant Allium (gorgeous huge 6-inch wide purple flower globes; click here for a picture)
  • Lunaria (purple flox-like flowers in the summer turn into silvery iridescent seed pods in the fall)
  • Bleeding Hearts (flowers in the spring are shaped like perfect little hearts)
  • Rex Begonias, which come in innumerable varieties of stunningly colored leaves
  • Hostas with giant leaves
  • Elephant Ear Plants (another plant with giant leaves, sometimes variegated with pink, white, black or red (varieties can have 6-18 inch leaves, other varieties can have 6 foot long leaves!)
  • Giant Sunflowers  (Helianthus annuus can grow up to 1 foot in height per a week; Sunzilla sunflower seed heads can get over a foot wide)
  • Check out this article “22 Insanely Cool Conversation-Piece Plants For Your Garden” for some other really intriguing ideas!

Allium Giganteum (4)
6 inch wide globes of Allium Giganteum (By Chris Gladis from Kyoto, Japan (Alluim Giganteum) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)
 Visual accessories:

  • Hang rainbow ribbons from trees
  • Create whirligigs to twirl in the wind
  • Create decorative garden stakes
  • Decorate flower-pot containers
  • Paint rocks to decorate the garden (click here for a cute idea of how to arrange painted rocks in a children’s garden)

Creating Curious Sounds

Bamboo Richelieu
Bamboo’s leaves make a lovely rustling noise in the wind. Photo credit: I, Manfred Heyde, GFDL http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
These plants will create rustling sounds when the wind blows through their leaves:

  • Bamboos (be careful as some varieties can be very invasive; plant only clumping varieties or otherwise plant them in containers)
  • Ornamental Grasses (in particular I like Rattle Snake Grass, Animated Oats, Greater Quaking Grass, or any super tall grasses, 6 ft or taller)
  • Cattails, if you have a wet, watery section to your sensory garden
  • Sweet Corn

Plants with rattling seed heads:

  • Love in the Mist
  • Poppies

Ripened poppy seed head - geograph.org.uk - 1451557
Ripened poppy seed head will make a rattling noise when shaken. (Photo credit: Pauline Eccles [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)
Plants to attract buzzing bees:

  • Canterbury bell (Campanula medium)
  • Bee Balm
  • Black-eyed susans
  • Sunflowers
  • Native Wildflowers
  • Flowering fruits, especially berries

Other auditory garden accessories:

  • Wind chimes
  • Bird feeders to attract songbirds
  • Create a water fountain or other water fixture for water play and enjoy the sound of running water

Nose-Tickling Aromas

These herbs are all edible, but have a rather strong flavor that is not very enjoyable when tasted plain on its own.  Their aromas, however, may make you salivate!  Teach children to either tear off a tiny piece of a leaf, crush it, and then smell it, or to rub a leaf with their fingers and then smell their fingertips.

  • Sage
  • Thyme
  • Rosemary
  • Oregano
  • Lavender
  • Curry Plant
  • Pineapple sage (really smells like pineapple!)
  • Lemon balm or lemon verbena
  • Agrimony (smells of apricots)
  • Juniper berries

These plants have wonderful aromas, but are not edible (as far as I’m aware):

  • Lilacs
  • Honeysuckle (when the flower are in bloom, you will smell a honey scent a block away)
  • Mexican Orange Sunflower
  • Jasmine
  • Sweet peas
  • My favorite:  scented geraniums (their furry fragrant leaves can come in practically every flavor you can think of, from apricot, to chocolate mint, to nutmeg)
  • Pine needles
  • Frangrant sumac

Tasty Sensations

The first thing we should remember about our tasting portion of the Sensory Garden, is that we should be particularly careful about the fertilizer and pest management used in this section of the garden.  Since these plants will actually be ingested, I think it’s worthwhile growing them completely organically, or without the use of any chemicals.  There are many natural and healthy ways to fertilize your plants and keep pest away, so please consider researching them (I will have more articles on how to garden organically in the future).

This section of your garden can contain any organic combination of vegetables and fruits, but here are a few that are particularly easy to pick off the plant for a quick bite:

toptip9

  • Cherry tomatoes
  • Lettuce
  • Spinach
  • Swiss chard (‘Bright Lights’ is particularly pretty)
  • Sweet peas
  • Green beans
  • Blueberries
  • Strawberries
  • Raspberries

Edible flowers:

  • Nasturtiums (spicy edible flowers and leaves)
  • Violas (mild pea flavor)
  • Violets (some varieties are more aromatic, some have a mild greens flavor)
  • Clover (carefully pluck out a petal and suck on the base to taste a drop of sweet nectar)

Delicious savory herbs:

  • Cilantro
  • Garlic Chives
  • Parsley
  • Anise
  • Basil
  • Dill
  • Thai Basil
  • Cinnamon Basil
  • Salad Burnet (cucumber flavor)
  • Sorrel (lemony flavor)
  • oxalis (often viewed as a weed, but actually edible with a nice lemony flavor)

Delicious sweeter herbs:

  • Peppermint
  • Spearmint
  • Apple Mint
  • Pineapple Mint (can you taste the difference?)
  • Chocolate Mint (super yummy!)
  • Stevia (the leaves are sweet with a mild licorice flavor)

Proprioceptive and Vestibular Sensations

People most commonly think of their five senses, but did you know there are actually 7 senses?  In addition to the traditional five senses, there is the proprioceptive sense, which is the sensation of your body’s movement and the relative positioning of body parts.  Can you close your eyes and then touch your finger to your nose?  You are able to do this because your body is using its proprioceptive sense.  Your body also has the vestibular sense, which is the sensation of the pull of gravity on your body, largely sensed through bones in your ears, which allows you to always sense which way is upwards.  Close your eyes and lean the whole back of your body against a wall.  Then close your eyes and lie down on the floor.  Does it feel different?  This is your body’s vestibular sense that allows you to sense this difference.

Children love activities that strongly stimulate these senses, such as climbing, swinging, sliding, spinning, and jumping.  Can you integrate some structures in your sensory garden to activate these little known senses?  How about adding a treetop swing, or a zip line to stimulate the vestibular sense?  Or maybe you want to build a children’s labyrinth  (here are some great images), use logs to create balance beams, create a structure for kids to climb on or over, or create hopscotch stepping stones in order to stimulate the proprioceptive sense.

What other ideas do you have to stimulate the senses in the garden?

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